Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Julia Louis-Dreyfus Grapples with White Lies in Nicole Holofcener's You Hurt My Feelings

YOU HURT MY FEELINGS
(Nicole Holofcener, 2023, USA, rated R, 93 minutes) 

Since 1996's Walking and Talking put her on the map, writer-director Nicole Holofcener has been releasing feature films at a pretty steady clip, one every four years on average. That number, however, excludes the fine films she's co-written with other writers and directors, like Marielle Heller's Oscar-nominated 2018 adaptation of Lee Israel's memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and Ridley Scott's 2021 adaptation of Eric Jager's fact-based novel The Last Duel. Notably, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote the sections focusing on their medieval duelists, while Holofcener wrote the section focusing on Jodie Comer's noblewoman, a victim of sexual assault. 

You Hurt My Feelings returns to the realm with which Holofcener is most closely associated: stories of metropolitan, artistically-inclined women (2018's The Land of Steady Habits with Ben Mendelsohn was a male-centric exception). As the 63-year-old has aged, so have her characters, whose lives frequently involve partners, adult children, and elderly parents. If the themes of self-image and class consciousness have remained consistent from film to film, she approaches each one from a different angle. 

Her seventh feature hones in on the white lies couples tell each other. Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus from 2013's Enough Said), a New York novelist and writing instructor, is happily married to Don (Tobias Menzies, Emmy winner for The Crown's Prince Philip), a therapist. The two share everything to the extent that their son, Eliot (The Montana Story's Owen Teague), an aspiring playwright who works in a cannabis dispensary, finds them a little embarrassing. He's also jealous, because things haven't been going well between him and his girlfriend. His parents make it look easy, but they're so concerned about offering encouragement to each other--and everyone else in their vicinity--that they veer towards the dishonest. 

Holofcener contrasts Beth and Don with Beth's sister, Sarah (Enlightened's Michaela Watkins), and her husband, Mark (Succession's Arian Moayad), who do something similar. As far as Sarah knows, Mark thinks she's a terrific interior decorator, and as far as he knows, she thinks he's a terrific actor, and yet they don't agonize over any of this stuff the way Beth does. It could be because they're different people working in different fields, but Holofcener also suggests that a writer's ego is an especially fragile thing, and Don has always praised Beth's work, so when she overhears him confess to Mark that he dislikes her new novel, she's completely crushed. 

Beth was already on edge. Even after revising the novel several times, her publisher remains disappointed. And when she mentions her previous book, a wrenching memoir, to her New School students, they respond with blank stares—not a single one has read it. One guileless young man admits that he signed up for her class simply because she was a published author. 

Don's professional life presents its own set of challenges, since his patients can be a handful, and he shares Beth's sensitivity to criticism (though he's more self-conscious about his looks). One passive-aggressive patient (Severance's Zach Cherry) mutters critical comments under his breath after each session, while a squabbling couple (real-life marrieds David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) refuses to take any of his advice. They can't stand each other, and yet they can't imagine life with anyone else. The only thing that truly unites them: when they decide they hate their therapist even more. 

For most of its running time, You Hurt My Feelings ranks among Holofcener's finest films, and when combined with her work on Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Last Duel, it confirms her as one of today's best screenwriters, even when navigating genres with which she isn't usually associated, so it pains me to say that she doesn't completely stick the landing. There's just one subplot too many. All I'll say is that it's a callback to 2001's Lovely and Amazing, one of her most admired, if thornier films. To be sure, there's good stuff in it, but the handling of Brenda Blethyn's weight-obsessed character felt more judgmental than not, and that never sat right with me. 

If You Hurt My Feelings goes easier on the judgment--not counting Jeanne Berlin as Beth's judgmental mother--Holofcener's handling of vanity could, at times, use more nuance. That said, she and Louis-Dreyfus make for a terrific team as the actress elevates her every word, and she never overdoes it, a trait some sitcom stars bring to film roles, but Louis-Dreyfus has always had the skill to handle material of greater subtlety, even if the small screen has provided most of her best parts. She's no more a pale substitute for Catherine Keener than Leonard DiCaprio is a pale substitute for Harvey Keitel or Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's post-millennial filmography. 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is her own person, making her ideal for a Nicole Holofcener film about a woman tying to figure out how to be her best, even as everyone around her--husband, mother, and son above all--has a different idea as to what that means and how she should go about it. As Tammy Wynette once sang, "Sometimes it's hard to be a woman." Holofcener has built a career around that premise, and yet she always manages to find the humor in every possible difficulty.

Beyond the writing, the directing, and the acting, on-screen humor lives or dies by the editing, not least because it's a form of writing--a form involving both technique and instinct--and there's real snap to Alisa Lepselter's editing in You Hurt My Feelings. Oddly, it's only her second Holofcener film after Walking and Talking, a gap of nearly 30 years. Between 1999 and 2020, Lepselter edited 22 Woody Allen films, and she's currently at work on #23. 

Allen's name may have fallen out of fashion, but it's hard to ignore his influence on Holofcener's work. If anything, she wouldn't have hired Lepselter if she was trying to be circumspect about it. Considering that the decline in Allen's reputation rests primarily on his relationships with women--particularly two who were underage when they entered his life--there's a perverse pleasure in watching a film about a "grown woman," to use Claire Dederer's parlance in Monsters, from a woman's perspective that replicates the best qualities of his best work. It isn't revenge, because I'm unaware of any specific vendetta on her part, but it still feels especially sweet.


You Hurt My Feelings opens in Seattle at the Uptown on Friday, May 26. It's also playing at the Meridian and Thornton Place, among other AMC theaters. Images from A24 (Julia Louis-Dreyfus with and without Tobias Menzies, David Cross and Amber Tamblyn, and Elaine May's daughter, Jeanne Berlin).

Sunday, May 21, 2023

SIFF Dispatch #5: A Made-for-TV Stars Wars Disaster and a D.I.Y. Success Story in A Disturbance in the Force and Dreamin' Wild

In this dispatch, I'll be looking at A Disturbance in the Force and Dreamin' Wild. Click here for dispatch #1 (Other People's Children), here for dispatch #2 (Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes), here for dispatch #3 (The Eight Mountains and Douglas Sirk: Hope as in Despair), and here for dispatch #4 (Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy). 

A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE 
(Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak, USA, 2023, 87 minutes) 

A Disturbance in the Force, a dissection of CBS's disastrous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, begins in recent years with Conan O'Brien asking Harrison Ford about it on the air. Ford becomes amusingly anxious, then denies any memory of the thing. Decades later, it still produces major yikes in its participants, many of whom appear in the documentary dissing it at public appearances. Nowadays, however, its badness is celebrated by non-participants who thrill to the clash between Star Wars cast members and pop-cult figures, like Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman. There had been precedents, like Stars Wars episodes of The Richard Pryor Show and Donnie and Marie--with vaudevillian Storm Troopers--but the long-form special pulled out all the stops. In the context of the gaudy variety shows of the 1970s and the relentless marketing around the movie, the special was a super-sized version of the action figures, the commercials--the whole George Lucas-generated shebang. Awful, sure, but as co-directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak persuasively prove: it was also inevitable. 

DREAMIN' WILD 
(Bill Pohlad, USA, 2023, 110 minutes)

Bill Pohlad isn't interested in rags to riches narratives. Love + Mercy alternated between Brian Wilson at two different stages in his life, a creatively fertile time and a time of recovery. The Spokane-filmed Dreamin' Wild has a different look and feel, but does something similar. Donnie Emerson (Casey Affleck) runs a studio with his wife, Nancy (Zooey Deschanel). He's neither rich and famous nor drug-addled and destitute. Just a normal working class guy. One day in 2011, his brother, Joe (Walton Goggins), calls to say that a record company--Light in the Attic--has expressed interest in Dreamin' Wild, the album they made in 1979. Pohlad alternates between Donnie as a teenager (played by Noah Jupe) and the present. If Murry Wilson had a negative impact on his sons, Joe Emerson, Sr. (Beau Bridges, low-key heartbreaking) had the opposite effect, building a tricked-out studio and doing everything possible to help them succeed. While Joe exults in the delayed recognition, Donnie feels like a failure--nothing else he ever did took off in the same way. All told, it isn't the most dynamic story, but it's a uniquely touching one. A film to stand alongside other Pacific Northwest portraits of sibling musicians, like Ulu Grosbard's Georgia and The Fabulous Baker Boys with Beau and Jeff Bridges.



There are no further SIFF screenings of A Disturbance in the Force, however I'll update this post as more viewing opportunities arise, whether online or in-person. Dreamin' Wild screens for a final time at Shoreline Community College today at 6:30pm. It was adapted from Steven Kurutz's terrific piece "Fruitland," which is well worth a read. Upcoming: reviews of Fremont and Clyde Petersen's Even Hell Has Its Heroes. Images from Lucasfilm / CBS (Bea Arthur with a giant Rick Baker-designed rat left over from Food of the Gods) and Roadside Attractions (Casey Affleck with Beau Bridges).  

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

SIFF Dispatch #4: Nancy Buirski Explores the Making of Midnight Cowboy in Desperate Souls

In this dispatch, I'll be looking at Desperate Souls. Click here for dispatch #1 (Other People's Children), here for dispatch #2 (Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes), and here for dispatch #3 (The Eight Mountains and Douglas Sirk: Hope as in Despair). 

DESPERATE SOULS, DARK CITY, AND THE LEGEND OF MIDNIGHT COWBOY 
(Nancy Buirski, USA, 2022, 101 minutes) 

British director John Schlesinger (A Kind of Loving) made history with 1969's Midnight Cowboy, breaking a few taboos along the way to a best picture win for an X-rated movie about a male hustler made by a gay filmmaker. 

Inspired by Glenn Frankel's 2021 book Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, and the Making of a Dark Classic, writer-director Nancy Buirski (By Sidney Lumet) starts with Jon Voight's 1968 screen test. At this stage in his life, it's easiest to see the physical similarity with his estranged daughter, Angelina Jolie. She may not share his current political views--which weren't as reactionary at the time--but she definitely inherited his good looks, from his height to his swagger to his full lips (her Mad Max-like entrance in 1996's Foxfire isn't all that different from his entrance in Midnight Cowboy). 

In addition to Voight, Buirski speaks with Bob Balaban, who talks about the film's unromantic view of New York, something uncommon in mainstream movies at the time. To writer Lucy Sante (Low Life), the film, which was shot by DP Adam Holender (The Panic in Needle Park), "could be an advertisement for anti-glamour."

John Schlesinger's nephew, writer/editor Ian Buruma, is the first to mention the director's sexual orientation. Though Schlesinger's parents knew he was gay and supported him, homosexuality in the UK was illegal prior to 1967. Making a film about a male sex worker was a commercially risky move, and yet Schlesinger believed that James Leo Herlihy's 1965 novel would make a great movie. To Voight, "the story was about loneliness." Schlesinger, who had felt marginalized in his youth, could relate. Since he passed away in 2003, Buirski includes his voice via archival material. She does the same with Holender, Herlihy, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Waldo Salt, who would reunite with Voight nine years later for Hal Ashby's Coming Home, resulting in Oscar wins for both (Voight lost in 1970 to, um, John Wayne).

Dustin Hoffman also contributes to the oral history through archival material, including an interview conducted by Frankel. Since Hoffman is alive and well, I'm not certain why he didn't sit for a new one. In any case, he could also relate to the story, especially the character of Ratso Rizzo, Joe Buck's constant companion. Phenomenal success of 1967's The Graduate aside, Hoffman remained as insecure about his looks as ever, still thinking of himself as the awkward, pimply adolescent of yore. 

To Jennifer Salt, who plays Crazy Annie, her father's screenplay went beyond adaptation into more personal territory, since Waldo, who passed away in 1987, drew from his own experiences as the product of a difficult home life and as a screenwriter blacklisted for years due to communist affiliation. 

Despite Schlesinger's early successes, like 1965's Darling, his 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd was a flop--though it's better than its reputation suggests--so there was a lot riding on his first American picture, but not only was Midnight Cowboy a hit, it eased the way for him to make a film featuring an unambiguously gay character, Sunday Bloody Sunday, two years later, something that would have been nearly impossible prior to 1969, even as he had dealt with unplanned pregnancy, abortion, and other controversial topics in his earlier features. 

Other speakers include author Edmund White, actress Brenda Vaccaro, film historian J. Hoberman, photographer--and Schlesinger partner--Michael Childers, and Brian De Palma (via Zoom with big, noise-canceling headphones), who talk about the influence of westerns and Andy Warhol's Factory. 

For all that, though, there's no discussion of the Grammy-winning score from composer John Barry and haunting theme song from Harry Nilsson, Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'." In the documentary, Buirski uses Neil's version of the song, so it's possible she couldn't clear the rights, though Nilsson's music has become more prevalent on screen in recent years. There is, otherwise, a lot of great material here, and Buirski lets a few speakers go long, particularly Sante and Hoberman, who always have insightful things to say, particularly about pre-Disneyfied New York and Vietnam-era America.



Desperate Souls plays the Uptown on Thursday, May 18. The sole Midnight Cowboy screening has passed, but the film can be streamed, for free (with ads) or for pay (without), on multiple platforms. For more information, please see the festival site. Images: Screen Daily via Claudia Tomassini + Associates (Jon Voight), IMDb (Voight and Bob Balaban), Entertainment Weekly via Everett Collection (Dustin Hoffman), and The Wrap via United Artists (Peter Finch and Murray Head in Sunday Bloody Sunday).  

Saturday, May 13, 2023

SIFF Dispatch #3: An Epic Friendship in The Eight Mountains and the Magnificent Melodrama of Sirk in Hope as in Despair

In this dispatch, I'll be looking at The Eight Mountains and Douglas Sirk: Hope as in Despair. Click here for dispatch #1 (Other People’s Children) and here for dispatch #2 
(Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes).

THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS / Le Otto Montagne 
(Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, 2022, Belgium/Italy, 147 minutes) 

Two lives become inextricably entwined in this Italian award winner from the Belgian makers of The Broken Circle Breakdown. By coincidence, I watched The Eight Mountains just after Celine Song's Past Lives. In both films, children meet at 12, form a connection and go their separate ways, only to reconnect at critical junctures. Much like Nora, Pietro even describes himself as "the one who leaves." He meets and bonds with Bruno in an alpine village so depopulated that they're the only children. It's a stunning, if pitiless place--particularly in the winter. If Bruno is rooted to the land, Pietro longs to see the world. Initially, class differences tear them apart, but family ties bring them back together. Martin Eden's Luca Marinelli, as the adult Pietro, is as terrific as ever. The Eight Mountains is a widescreen story shot entirely in the 4:3 aspect ratio by Titane cinematographer Ruben Impens. 

DOUGLAS SIRK - HOPE AS IN DESPAIR 
(Roman Hüben, 2022, Switzerland/Germany/France, 76 minutes) 

"Film is blood, tears, hate, death, and love."
--Douglas Sirk (1897-1987)

Swiss filmmaker Roman Hüben explores Douglas Sirk's career in considerable depth in his essay-style documentary. Born Detlef Sierck in Germany, Sirk spent his twilight years in Hüben's native Lugano. In the 1930s, when Nazis presented Sirk with a choice between his career and his Jewish wife, he fled to the States where he would enjoy his greatest successes, particularly the melodramas he made with Rock Hudson, a sort of surrogate son. Hüben's interviewees include director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven), biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, journalist Jon Halliday--I have Halliday's invaluable book of interviews--and Fassbinder favorite Hanna Schygulla (Fassbinder and Hudson appear in archival interviews). Though I recommend the film for anyone interested in Sirk, Hüben's German narration has a somniferous quality--I also recommend a shot of caffeine beforehand.


The Eight Mountains plays the Egyptian at 11am today and opens at the Egyptian on May 26. Douglas Sirk - Hope as in Despair plays again on May 16 and becomes available to stream on May 29. I would also recommend Love to Love You, Donna Summer, which plays again on May 13, and festival opener Past Lives, which opens at the Uptown on June 13. For more information, please see the festival site. Images: The Eight Mountains from Janus / Cannes Film Festival and Sirk, Hudson, and Wyman from Wikipedia.   

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

SIFF 2023 Dispatch #2: Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro Profile an American Master in Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes

In this dispatch, I’ll be looking at Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes. Click here for dispatch #1: Other People's Children

MAX ROACH: THE DRUM ALSO WALTZES 
(Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro, USA, 2023, 82 minutes) 

Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro's admiring, if fair-minded profile of drummer Max Roach joins a lineage of jazz musician profiles that have aired as part of PBS's American Masters after enjoying a festival or theatrical run. 
 
In 2019, for instance, SIFF programmed Stanley Nelson's very fine Miles Davis documentary Birth of the Cool, which aired during the 34th season (in the interest of full disclosure, I work at PBS member station KCTS 9, which will be airing The Drum Also Waltzes in October).  

For perspective, here's a full list of American Masters jazz musician profiles that have preceded Pollard and Shapiro's film:

Billie Holiday: The Long Night of Lady Day 
A Duke Named Ellington 
Satchmo: The Life of Louis Armstrong 
Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker 
Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One 
Benny Goodman: Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing 
Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For 
Quincy Jones: In the Pocket 
The World of Nat King Cole 
Cab Calloway: Sketches 
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool 
 
That's a pretty heavy group. For those who don't know much about jazz, Roach's name is likely to be less familiar than most of those other musicians, though it says something about his talent and reputation that he played with both Charlie "Bird" Parker and Miles Davis (pictured above); one-time Seattleite Quincy Jones also appears as a speaker. 

Unlike many previous jazz musician profiles, however, this one was--in a manner of speaking--in the works for nearly 35 years. Pollard first worked with Roach on a project involving poet Langston Hughes in 1983, and decided four years later, during a sit-down interview, that someone really should make a film about Roach, except Pollard was just an editor at the time and not the filmmaker and producer he would become. Around the same time, Ben Shapiro, a filmmaker and drummer, interviewed Roach for an audio project. It took years, but they would eventually join forces. 

Like Sam Pollard, Roach grew up in New York. Exposed to jazz from an early age, he knew he wanted to be part of that world. When he was in his early teens, his father gifted him with a drum kit, and he got to work. In his words, he became "a fanatic." All that practicing led him to become one of the leading lights of Manhattan's bebop scene in the 1940s, alongside Parker, Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. 
 
"We hated to sleep," he says in an audio interview, and they played non-stop, making music so groundbreaking at the time that saxophone player Sonny Rollins says he couldn't stand it at first, while actor/musician Harry Belafonte remembers attending Parker/Davis/Roach gigs with his friend, Marlon Brando. It was, he recalls, "one great genius after another."

Just as Parker and Davis would become addicted to heroin, Roach followed suit, but his daughter Maxine's birth in 1950--combined with his mother's entreaties--inspired him to get clean. By the 1950s, he had segued from playing with Parker and Davis to leading an ensemble with trumpeter Clifford Brown. They would later welcome Rollins, who appears in the documentary, into the fold. The group was having a tremendous time recording and playing across the country until Brown was killed in a traffic fatality on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He was only 25. 

Rollins recalls that Roach was devastated. The next few years would not be easy. He had a temper, and he drank--never a good combination. His son, Daryl Keith, says that his parents got divorced sometime afterward. He wouldn't see his father much after that. Then Max met singer/actress Abby Lincoln (Nothing But a Man). He helped her to transition from entertainer to artist. "I was lost," she says in archival footage. "He saved my life."

Together, they cut a figure as sharp as Miles Davis in the 1960s with singer Betty Davis and in the 1970s with actress Cicely Tyson. With Lincoln by his side, Roach entered the jazz-vocal realm whereby his music become overtly political, particularly 1960's We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite with its stark cover featuring bold lettering over a photograph of three Black men at a lunch counter being eyed with suspicion by a white soda jerk. 
 
Max and Abby made their mark, musically, politically, and stylistically with their dashikis and beads, but the marriage eventually came to an end. There was pressure on Max from all sides, from possible FBI surveillance to record company appeals to downplay the politics and add more fusion-style electronics to the mix. 

With no intention of changing his stripes, plus the end of his Atlantic contract and a family to feed--including a new wife and children--he took a teaching job at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he continued to play music on his own terms. Instead of a new brass or vocal partner, he formed an all-percussion unit, M'Boom, and then, when hip-hop emerged, he collaborated with emcees, like godson Fab 5 Freddy, the future Yo! MTV Raps host immortalized by Blondie in "Rapture." Throughout the rest of his life, he would continue to find new forms to which to apply his skills, including collaborations with dancers and writers, like Toni Morrison. 

Max Roach died in 2007 at the age of 83. Since Shapiro and Pollard finished shooting their film, several speakers have also passed on, including pianist Randy Weston, saxophone player Jimmy Heath, critic and musician Greg Tate, and most recently, actor and musician Harry Belafonte (Abby Lincoln passed away in 2010). As of this writing, Sonny Rollins is still surviving and thriving at the age of 92, a living link to the adventurous jazz world Max Roach and his associates helped to create over 70 years ago.  


 
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes plays the Uptown on May 13, Pacific Place on May 15, and streams on the SIFF Channel from May 22 - May 28. For more information, please see the festival page. Images from American Masters (Max Roach), Robert Parent / Alejandro Escovedo (Roach with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins in 1956), Drummerworld (Roach with Gretsch kit), and Jazz Messengers (We Insist! album cover).

Sunday, May 7, 2023

SIFF 2023 Dispatch #1: Rebecca Zlotowski's Incisive Drama Other People's Children

Welcome to the 49th annual Seattle International Film Festival, the first in-person festival since the pandemic began. 


SIFF 2023 opens with Celine Song's Past Lives on Thursday, May 11, and closes with Chandler Levack's I Like Movies on Sunday, May 21, and continues streaming on the SIFF Channel from Monday, May 22, through Sunday, May 28. In this dispatch, I’ll be looking at Other People's Children.

OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN / Les Enfants des Autres 
(Rebecca Zlotowski, France, 2022, 104 minutes) 

Rebecca Zlotowski's follow-up to The Easy Girl, a fine 2019 film about the romantic misadventures of two single women in Cannes, revolves around Rachel (Belgian-French actress Virginie Efira) a single high school teacher in Paris. Though her ex-husband has moved on to a new relationship, she hasn't been actively searching for a partner until she clicks with her guitar teacher, industrial designer Ali (Roschdy Zem from Louis Garrel's The Innocent). He shares custody of his four-year-old daughter with his ex-wife, Alice (Chiara Mastroianni, making the most of a small, but crucial role).

Rachel has a close relationship with her sister and widowed father, who express curiosity about Ali (their Judaism is a characteristic, not a plot point). She would like to learn more, too, and lets him know that she's ready to meet Leïla (the charming Callie Ferreira-Goncalves). He cautions her that "it's not always easy" dealing with other people's children, and that Leïla is "completely adorable" and "a bit of a pain in the ass," He's not wrong, but their first meeting goes well. 

Their next meeting proves awkward, however, when Leïla insists on sleeping in her father's bed, unaware that Rachel is spending the night. Efira, who had little compunction about the nudity in Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven's elevated take on nunsploitation, slips out to the balcony fully nude in order to spare Leila any discomfort or confusion. The balcony is just wide enough that she can sneak in through another door without being detected. 

Not long afterward, she considers starting a family with Ali, so she makes an appointment with a gynecologist who tells her she doesn't have much time left (Rachel is in her 40s). If Dr. Wiseman looks a lot like legendary American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, a French citizen, it's no coincidence, and he’s quite good in his brief scenes (in 2022, at 92, Wiseman also directed his narrative debut, the French-language docudrama A Couple). 

Once Rachel's novelty factor wears off, Leïla starts to miss her mother whenever she spends time with her father and his girlfriend. It kicks in during a trip out of town when she can't stop talking about how badly she wants to return home to Alice. Later, she asks her father, "Why Is Rachel always here? I want her to go away." Ali had warned her that Leïla could be a handful, though he assures her she talks that way about him and Alice, too. 

Zlotowski contrasts Rachel's friction with Leïla and her inability to get pregnant with her concern for another person's child, Dylan (Victor Lefebvre), a student with unrealized potential. Despite her best efforts, he risks getting kicked out of school. She also contrasts Ali with Vincent (Henri-Noël Tabary), a younger--presumably childless--colleague who adores her. 

Rachel's feelings about motherhood are complicated by events from both past and present, from her mother's death when she was a child--she was in the car during the crash--to an abortion while she was married, to her younger sister's welcome, if unplanned pregnancy. From these elements, Zlotowski could have taken things in a clichéd direction, but Other People’s Children becomes less predictable towards the end, not least because there's never any conflict between Rachel and Leïla's mother and nor does Vincent's undisguised interest in her upset her relationship with Ali.

In its first half, the film bears comparison with Mia Hansen-Love's One Fine Morning, in which a single mother balances a new relationship with her daughter's needs and those of her rapidly-declining father, and Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan in which a single woman becomes pregnant shortly after meeting the man who will become her husband, except its the relationship with her daughter that lasts and sustains her. 

In its second half, Zlotowski's fifth film breaks away from those two, and becomes something more bittersweet, if ultimately triumphant--that triumph, though, isn't what Rachel was looking for throughout the film. Not to give too much away, but as a woman without children, I found it quite affecting, even as Efira is a cool, if compelling performer--in Filmmaker, DP George Lechaptois compares her to Romy Schneider, and he's not wrong. 

 

Other People's Children plays 5/13 at Shoreline Community College and 5/18 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Dates and times are subject to change. Please see the festival site for more info about dates, times, venues, and guests. Images from Wild Bunch/Music Box Films, Unifrance, and Filmelier.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

King Creole: Kelvin Harrison Jr. Is a Classical Music Star in 18th-Century France in Chevalier

CHEVALIER 
(Stephen Williams, USA, 2023, PG-13, 117 minutes) 

One glance at an any random encyclopedia entry for Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is all it takes to understand why this little-known classical musician and composer merits a major motion picture: the semi-illegitimate son of a 16-year-old slave, Saint-Georges scaled the highest of heights in Marie Antoinette-era France. 

Like Saint-Georges, director Stephen Williams has West Indian roots--Kingston, Jamaica, in his case. After establishing his directorial bona fides in Canada, where he grew up, Williams went on to a thriving career in American television, including high-profile shows like Lost and Watchmen

If I didn't know his subject was a real person, I would assume he was pure fiction, not least when Williams opens the film with an unlikely violin duel between the obscure Saint-Georges (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and the celebrated Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen). The latter would famously inspire Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning play, Amadeus, which would, in turn, provide the raw material for Miloš Forman's Oscar-winning adaptation in whose shadow most classical music biopics tend to pale. 

In Chevalier, Mozart is a bit player, and he won't return after Saint-Georges convinces the musician and composer to let him share the stage. The upstart doesn't even have an instrument with him, so an orchestra member loans him his violin. The look on Mozart's face indicates that he plans to put this gatecrasher in his place, but Saint-Georges knocks him--and the rouged and powdered audience--out with his virtuosic playing (in real life, Saint-Georges was 11 years Mozart's senior). None of this struck me as especially believable, though Harrison, who has been playing since childhood, makes for a convincing violinist. 

From there, Williams takes a brief look back at Saint-Georges's youth.  Product of a liaison between George Bologne (Jim High), a French plantation owner, and Nanon (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), a Senegalese-Guadeloupian slave, he enters life as a free man when Bologne gives him his name and sends him to France's finest schools, but a slave master is still a slave master, no matter how ornately he gilds the lily. Bologne doesn't, for instance, marry Nanon--like most such men, he was already married, after all--but some time after she is freed, Saint-Georges invites her to live with him once he has established himself in French society. 

So, the father gives the son a fighting chance, and he takes it. If Saint-Georges must contend with every manner of bigotry along the way, his talent can't be denied. So far so good, except things take a soap operatic turn when he meets the unhappily married Marie-Josephine (Ready or Not's Samara Weaving) who longs to star in his opera Ernestine (with a libretto by Les Liaisons Dangereuses author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos). 

Her military general husband, Marc René, Marquis de Montalembert (Asylum's Marton Csokas), doesn't want her to have anything to do with music--or a certain Black man--but when he leaves for an extended trip abroad, she throws caution to the wind, wins the part, and gains a lover. 

Harrison and Weaving are fine, but the script from Stefani Robinson (Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows) doesn't allow them to be much more than symbols. She's talented and beautiful, and he's much the same, except he's Black, so they can't wed, because interracial marriage was illegal under Code Noir. Even if it wasn’t, her hothead husband could cause grievous harm to one or the both of them--and get away with it, too. 

Saint-Georges must also contend with Antoinette (Bohemian Rhapsody's Lucy Boynton), a powerful supporter who distances herself when it serves her purposes, and La Guimard (Beyond the Lights' Minnie Driver), a diva who offers to help him out professionally if he'll help her out in a more personal way. At risk to his career, he resists her advances, and she spends the rest of the film looking aggrieved in proto-goth lipstick

Chevalier won praise for Harrison's performance when it premiered at Toronto last year, and that inspired me to check it out, having admired his work since 2017's It Comes at Night. He also appeared in Trey Schultes' follow-up, Waves, but he gives his trickiest, most nuanced performance to date in Julius Onah's Luce. In it, he plays an Eritrea-born star athlete raised by a well meaning American couple, played by Funny Games duo Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. Luce served as a child soldier, and no one knows what that entailed--and whether his carefully-molded model citizen veneer is cover for a ticking time bomb capable of great violence. 

In the years since, he's played singers and guitarists in Elvis and on FX's Godfather of Harlem. In retrospect, those roles feel like dress rehearsal for his first leading role as a musician. 

If I'm convinced that Harrison is capable of greatness, Chevalier doesn’t quite get him there, but top-lining a prestigious studio picture will surely help to create more such opportunities in the future. One way or the other, I'm glad this film was made. It doesn't hurt that it involves so many people of color behind the scenes, including composer and arranger Michael Abels, who worked on all three of Jordan Peele's feature films. 

More people, especially those outside of the classical music community, should know about Saint-Georges. In addition to his many operas, symphonies, and concertos--most lost due to Napoleon's racist edits--he was also a dedicated abolitionist and a formidable fencer. After over two centuries, he's finally having a moment, since he also appears in The Favourite co-writer Deborah Davis's new BBC series Marie Antoinette. I only wish Chevalier was a deeper and richer tribute to his talents. 


 

Chevalier opens on Friday, June 21, at the Regal Meridian, AMC Seattle 10, and Regal Thornton Place, among other area theaters. Images: Searchlight Pictures (Kelvin Harrison Jr. with and without Samara Weaving) and Larry Horricks/Searchlight Pictures (Harrison with Joseph Prowen)